AA as “stealth Buddhism”

buddha wallpaper

By Thom L

I’ve sometime heard at meetings in western Massachusetts that AA is “stealth Buddhism”. I like to think of the historical Buddha as one of the first addictions counselors. He observed that the “dissatisfaction / anguish” we all experience in life is a result of our cravings, and that there is a way out of our constant lurching between desire and aversion. Seeing clearly the true state of our minds through meditation and acting on this awareness (dharma) can free us from being slaves to our addictive behaviors.

Back in November at the We Agnostics, Atheists and Free Thinkers (WAAFT) convention, I had volunteered to write about the workshop “Buddhist Precepts or Vows as They Relate to Recovery”. The workshop was to have been led by Darren Littlejohn.

The 12 Step BuddhistUnfortunately, Darren didn’t make it. For those of you who have never heard about Darren, he wrote a popular book about Buddhism and AA in 2009 called The Twelve Step Buddhist.

A volunteer at the workshop asked if there were any “practicing Buddhists” in the room who could address the topic. Paulette, Joann, and I volunteered. We were impressed by the strong interest that those assembled had in the subject.

Along with 24 years of sobriety, I’ve been practicing meditation for over 19 years. I had an interest in Buddhism in my late teens and early 20s but had “converted to alcoholism” for about 25 years. Then when I got sober, I felt the need to rekindle this interest as part of my Step Eleven work. I started sitting regularly with a group more than 17 years ago, and consider Thursday nights with the Still Pond Zendo one of my recovery meetings. In fact, about half of the members are also in recovery, and the topics we discuss after our first 30-minute meditation are no different than what we talk about in many AA meetings: how to navigate life without getting trapped by conditioned behaviors and thoughts.

After the meeting, I gathered together some of my observations about Buddhist practice as a part of my recovery in AA. I hope that they may be helpful for others interested in enriching their recovery with elements of Buddhist practice.

  • “Buddha” means one who has awakened. The historical Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama, born in northern India around 500 BCE, had a profound epiphany of seeing though his illlusions. He’s not the only one who has had this experience. It’s possible for all of us if we can let go fully of our conditioned thinking.
  • Grappling with the impermanent nature of everything – including our own lifespans – is the central challenge. (The average lifespan in North America is about 650,000 hours!) Remembering this helps me pay avid attention to the present moment. All else is memory or fantasy.
  • Acting on the illusion of a permanent, independent “self” keeps me crazy. Or, as I’ve heard in meetings, “My biggest problem is my misperception of myself”. Also, “Don’t believe everything you think”.
  • I think my real addiction has always been wanting things to be other than they really are. My ego has invented a feature-length movie — The Story of ME! — written and directed by ME, starring ME, playing on the Big Screen of my mind! (And if I could arrange it, “Coming to a theater near you!”) Seeing and accepting things as they are is a lot more challenging (and no popcorn). In many ways, the “Power” that keeps me sober and sane is the power of acceptance.
  • Opening myself to the interconnectedness of everything is how I experience a “higher power” — a power beyond my own ego. In my body right now are atoms that were in the bodies of stars, dinosaurs, Buddha, Jesus, Hitler — and maybe even Peewee Herman. (It’s a “wow” factor — see “prayer” below.) Recognizing this makes me feel a bit less of the isolation many of us experience.
  • I heard someone at a meeting at the convention use the term deeper power instead of Higher Power. Not so hierarchical, closer to the notion of cultivating my “Buddha nature”, from within. It’s an inside job.
  • A question arose in the workshop about how prayer fits into a practice that has no real sense of “god” to whom to beseech. I think of meditation as “inspiration” and prayer as “aspiration” — that is, it’s what I hope for: for example, “May all beings be happy and safe”, and so forth. But really, my two prayers are just “Thanks” and “Wow!” Gratitude and awe are the focus of my “prayer”. And the Buddha said, “The greatest prayer is patience”.
  • Joann spoke about using dharma practice in her business life. That was such a good reminder that this practice doesn’t stop when we get off the cushion. It often has profound effects on those around us when we’re not defensive, reactive, or scared.
  • Compassion is the highest virtue in Buddhism. Having had the privilege of being entrusted with several men’s Fourth and Fifth Steps, I really get that “There but for the grace of a Group Of Drunks go I”.
  • Paulette noted when she described her dharma practice that Buddhism sees humans as intrinsically whole and healthy (unlike the original sin idea of the Abrahamic traditions or the idea that we’re diseased). Seeing ourselves as humans whose view of the world has been skewed by confusion and addiction allows us to use what Buddhists term “skillful means” to see things as they really are.
  • Quit taking it personally. Or as Bill Wilson’s physician Dr. William Silkworth said, “There is a tendency to label everything that an alcoholic may do as ‘alcoholic behavior.’ The truth is, it is simply human nature… Emotional and mental quirks are classified as symptoms of alcoholism merely because alcoholics have them, yet those same quirks can be found among non-alcoholics, too. Actually they are symptoms of mankind.” Dharma practice is a method of exploring human nature and seeing clearly how it plays out in our personal sitcoms. Steps Four, Six and Seven, Ten and Eleven provide this opportunity.
  • Don’t get hung up with concepts and ideology. The Buddha cautioned his early followers, “Don’t believe anything anyone says, even if I say it, unless it makes sense to you”. For example, I remain thoroughly skeptical about the notion of reincarnation.
  • Direct experience trumps theory every time. Don’t be a Buddhist, be a Buddha!

Buddhism can be a practice and not a belief system. I think this is an important distinction for WAAFTs.

Stephen Batchelor wrote in Buddhism without Beliefs: A Contemporary Guide to Awakening that “While ‘Buddhism’ suggests another belief system, ‘dharma practice’ suggests a course of action. The four ennobling truths are not propositions to believe; they are challenges to act”. It’s the practice, and not the belief system, that helps us stay clean/sober/sane.

Buddhism WorkbookIt is worth noting that quite a number of books speak of the link between AA and Buddhism. In 2004 Kevin Griffin wrote One Breath at a Time: Buddhism and the Twelve Steps.  And this year (2014), he published a follow-up called: Buddhism and the Twelve Steps: A Recovery Workbook for Individuals and Groups.

And there is a wealth of more information at this website: Buddhist Recovery Network.

AA as “stealth Buddhism?”

Maybe they’re on to something at those meetings in western Massachusetts.

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Thom L has been sober in AA since 1990. He is a “devout nontheist” and has had an agnostic Buddhist meditation practice since 1995. Living in Berkshire County in western Massachusetts, he is one of the co-founders of his agnostic AA home group.  He attended the WAAFT IAA Convention in Santa Monica CA and immediately fell in love with 275 other sober agnostics, atheists, and freethinkers.


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AA as “stealth Buddhism” — 22 Comments

  1. Agree with Joe C.: One needn’t wait until the 11th step to begin meditation. After all, that’s not the case with prayer for most. There are several really great books out there regarding Buddhism and the 12 Steps. I read most of ’em, then “Refuge Recovery” was published and it stopped me in my tracks. In really plain, direct language, it used Buddhism’s Four Noble Truths and Eightfold Path as the basis for a program of recovery that can be worked along with the 12-step work or alone. Incredible. We started a couple of meetings in our area, and the response from those attending has been great. Many still attend 12-step meetings, some don’t. It’s well worth checking out if one is interested in a Buddhist approach to recovery (and one needn’t be a ‘card-carrying Buddhist’ to work this program).

    • Tom,
      A bit of general inquiry about Refuge Recovery and Buddhism.
      As disagreeable as the god stuff and the moralistic stuff is in the 12 steps, they have always sort of made sense to me, whereas the 4 this, the 8 that and the 9 the other in Buddhism haven’t – all the while I actually find Buddhism to be one of the most agreeable general directions of spiritual growth.
      So how does this book approach things – heavily invested in this more formal structure of Buddhism or more loose about it? Either way is fine for some while not for others, of course. I am just curious for myself. I have bought several books on the relations between 12 steps and Buddhism, and have wound up frustrated with all of them so far.

      • Life -J
        The 12 steps make sense to me as well. That Noah Levine, the book’s author, has said that he remains involved in a 12-step culture (as he has been for twenty-some years) so I guess they pretty much have for him as well. This program doesn’t necessarily preclude working the steps, though it can replace step work for those strongly opposed to the Christian references and overtones of 12-step literature. But many others have found a way around that. For me, the beauty of this program is that it uses simple Buddhist fundamentals (many of which it shares with the steps and, for that matter, various schools of psychology) as they are, rather than making any attempt to re-interpret them in 12-step lingo and moralism. Any heavy investment in Buddhism’s more formal structure (which, to a degree, depends on which form of Buddhism one might be talking about) is pretty much limited to the four noble truths (which lay out the problem – the source of most addition – and the eightfold path, which offers a solution based on Right (or wise) view, intention, speech, action, livelihood, effort, mindfulness, concentration. The lists stop there (except for two fairly comprehensive personal inventories), and the program is quite approachable for those with no background nor great interest in Buddhism. Buddhist terminology is largely traded for everyday-speak, and the teachings are treated more like the wisdom of a radical (for his time) psychologist than anything else. As one might guess, there is a much stronger emphasis on meditation than in 12-step culture, more overt mention of personal responsibility in the recovery process (though a community of peers is critical to the equation), and much different handling of what AA calls ‘character defects.’ That’s my wordy short take on it all. Caveat – There are those who have attending these meetings for years, and will have more to say on it – will be more qualified spokepeople – than I, who just got on board this summer. Might not hurt to search out an interview or two with Noah Levine on the subject, or visit the Refuge Recovery website. Of course, reading the book is best. Hope this helps!

  2. Thank you for this post. I have long thought of the Buddha as history’s first psychologist. This post elucidates some of the reasons I came to that conclusion. I will admit that I have been lazy as far as incorporating some Buddhist thought and actions into my life and into my aa program, so this is a timely message for me. I also noticed that life-j mentioned 365 Tao and I have incorporated some Taoist thinking into my life and practice thanks to “Everyday TaoK by the same author that life-j mentions.

    • Kevin,
      I eventually bought Everyday Tao too, but found it less accessible than 365 TAO, though the principles behind are the same.

  3. Thanks so much for this post. It makes me want more!!! (is that my alcoholic talking?)
    I am glad for the connection you are making here of a skeptic or agnostic still being able to get past “self identification,” without resorting to religion or god or even complicated doctrines.

    One of the things i realized about most “old” religions, is not that they get god wrong. No, they get “us” wrong, they get “I” wrong, or “self” wrong. The most obvious component missing in most ancient religions is reference to the unconscious mind. Without reference to the unconscious mind, many religious doctrines remain dated, nostalgic and even dangerous. By refusing to acknowledge the unconscious mind, I end up seeing the despicable and the dark parts of myself “out there.” There are few systems of thought that have allowed people to do more damage to imagined enemies than misguided religions. End of rant.
    It sounds like Buddhism is very different. I would like to learn more.

  4. A lovely meditation on practicing meditation. Thank you Thom. I’ve practiced mostly non-diligently regular meditation on and off for 41 of my 42 years in recovery. As a therapist in the field of addiction, I strongly recommended it to my clients, but it was one of those don’t do and I do, do as I say, because I rarely consistently practiced meditation myself.

    However, for the past 129 days, I have been practicing daily meditation with the assistance of a marvelous app that Roger C. recommended to me, Insight Timer. It offers some 79 guided meditations by prominent meditation teacher/practitioners from around the world, varying in length from 1 – 61 minutes, if I recall correctly. The quality of my life and my recovery have benefited immensely since I’ve regularly been DOING meditation, instead of talking or recommending or thinking about it . . . 😉

    What I appreciate about Buddhist meditation, or mindfulness, is that it’s benefit depends not so much on what one believes about it, but on the actual, consistent practice of it. Doing it is what results in benefit, not what one believes regarding it.

    I also recall somewhere in the AA literature in the 1940s, if I recall correctly, it’s related that Bill was most pleased when he found out that the 12 steps could be easily adapted and accepted by Buddhist practitioners simply by replacing god with good. AA as an institution has devolved a long way from those halcyon days, but it’s my hopeful belief that we WAAFTs can mindfully influence AA to return to being wide open to include all who seek recovery regardless of belief or lack of belief.

  5. Wonderful post, thanks Thom. My daily meditation practice – an action rather than a belief – has helped me along my path of sobriety, that’s for sure. Grateful to be sober today!

  6. A great article. Thank you.
    I missed the session you speak of at the convention. The little room was already full and someone was doing a guided meditation, so I blew it off. Sorry I missed it.
    I read Littlejohn’s book a few years ago and I was a little put off at his criticism of Theravada Buddhism. Sectarianism? It is important for people to know that Buddhism comes in a number of flavors. Some are definitely religious in nature with many devotions and rituals and others are more based on the practice of meditation as illustrated by your Stephen Batchelor quote.
    I think Americans are bringing some great things to buddhism. They are approaching it with less “orientalism”, which is simply an attraction to things exotic. The practice is about personal investigation and discovery. Scientist are seriously studying meditation now. Once the province of monks who devoted much of their time to it, meditation is commonly practiced by millions of lay persons.
    Perhaps we should also share that buddhist meditation is a very specific kind of meditation. What Bill W. describes as meditation in the BB does not qualify as buddhist meditation.
    I started out in AA as a theist. The program worked. I got sober and stayed sober. But over time I became more and more uncomfortable with the notion of god. Someone at a meeting gave me a copy of “The Power of Now”. One of its recommendations was to meditate with a group so I sought one out. This led to much investigation of buddhist thought and a daily meditation practice. The Buddha’s admonition “Don’t take my word for it.” really appealed to me. Meditation was good but the quality of the experience changed radically once I attended a 10 day Goenke retreat. I loved that, like AA, it was free. That spoke to my heart. I was also please to find that it was quite secular. It was not a proponent of “Buddhism” at all. It was a proponent of the practice of buddhist meditation.
    I now consider the 12 steps as part of “sila” (morality). And have begun to follow it with meditation to achieve “samadhi” (concentration), and “panna” (wisdom). (I recently told someone that doesn’t know I’m alcoholic that I don’t drink because I’m practicing the 5th precept. I was trying to be funny and told an untruth. I don’t drink because I’m not good at it. The same reason I don’t fly airplanes.)
    I am not sure that Buddhism is a well trodden path to sobriety for the problem drinker. I do know that it is an immensely beneficial adjunct to my recovery.
    p.s. Thanks to Christopher G. for “a sponsor is someone you ‘practice’ telling the truth to”.

  7. Damn, looks like have some more reading to do.

    When I was in LA, I went to a Refuge Recovery meeting – a Buddhist talk on recovery from addiction and I picked up the book by the same name, Refuge Recovery: A Buddhist Path to Recovering from Addiction by Noah Levine.

    It is a good read. It talks about something I started to reason out 1/2 way through my sobriety. Meditation (or more specifically – mindfulness) ought to be practiced right away – not after the first 10 Steps. One of the very practical features of mindfulness is it helps untangle my thinking about my relationship with alcohol. Dismissing the idea of powerlessness and unmanageability as a knee-jerk “I’m in charge of my destiny” reaction is potentially problematic. So is accepting it hook-line-and-sinker without really grasping what that means to me. Only by mindfulness (and/or writing) can I get to the core of what’s true for me. The same is true with the rest of the Steps.

    Eastern philosophy has some very practical concepts for someone who thinks Step six and seven are wishful or flawed thinking.

    Thanks for some good reading and thinking as always…

  8. You hit the ball out of the park Thom.
    I have been an on again, off again practitioner of meditation for all of my sober life.
    Your piece has convinced me to put my impatience back in the kennel and return to the path.

  9. Wow! indeed! I have taken away a lot from this. Thank you, Thom.
    I started sitting zazen about 2 years ago at the suggestion of a therapist who is also in practice. Since “converting” to waaftism this year thanks to this website, Joe C’s book, the “law of unintended consequences” that my god-saturated traditional AA program inspired, and a lifetime of seeking for “that with which I seek”, I started my first We Don’t Know meeting in June and have been seriously considering starting another in the vein you describe regarding the steps.
    I like your reminder that the important thing is action and practice, not belief. “Experience trumps everything”, I heard at the convention.
    As some of my peers in the rooms have said, “a sponsor is someone you ‘practice’ telling the truth to” and that the rooms of recovery are “kindergarten” for us who have been “skewed by confusion and addiction”.
    Finally, I absolutely love the Silkworth quote.

    There is a tendency to label everything that an alcoholic may do as “alcoholic behavior.” The truth is, it is simply human nature… Emotional and mental quirks are classified as symptoms of alcoholism merely because alcoholics have them, yet those same quirks can be found among non-alcoholics, too. Actually they are symptoms of mankind.

    I have been sharing for a long time now on the long form of the third tradition, emphasizing “all who suffer from alcoholism” as the only requirement for membership. As the quote indicates, that includes all of humanity whether they’ve ever taken a drink or not! Since its definition is described in AA literature as what all people, in my estimation, live with (selfishness, self-centeredness and fear), without drinking and using! That of course requires a whole lot more of love and tolerance than I am normally aware of! Hence, the need for practice!

  10. Nice read and reminder of the Interconnectedness of everything. I, you, we, one. Works for me.

  11. I was happy to see the Laura S. book, “Bill, the Buddha, and We,” on the list of Buddhist AA resources – it literally saved me early in sobriety. I too was drawn to Buddhist thought long ago, but remember thinking at the time that the 8-fold path, and sitting for hours and hours meditating in order to “transcend” reality as I perceived the Buddha to have done, were way too much work and would interfere with my drinking. Now I realize the point is not to transcend life but to transcend ego so as to embrace life. Still a daunting task at times, but easier than escaping from life via alcohol. Thanks for the distillation (no pun intended) on how Buddhism and the steps are complementary to one another. I am beginning to grasp that all paths with ego-eclipsing as the goal are pretty much the same, as reading of the Christian mystics and Sufis teaches me.

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  13. Pleasant read, and much more down to earth than most attempts to connect AA and Buddhism that I have seen. So thanks.
    Myself I am drifting toward TAO, as it seems even broader in its embrace of all of life’s manifestations, particularly well expressed in a little daily reader called “365 TAO”.